The Dismemberment of the Soviet Union – Part 1


By Nicholas Dima l August 31, 2011

President Reagan speaks in Berlin at the Brandenburg Gate – June 12, 1987



Russia, which extends over eleven time zones, is the largest country on earth. During the Soviet years, Moscow enjoyed its greatest geographic reach and had aspirations of even greater expansion. Moscow’s dreams of being an embryonic world state died in Afghanistan in a war that exhausted an already weakened Soviet system. The perpetual crises of the Soviet state were an indication of a fatal flaw brought on by the absence of a unifying factor that could overcome the vast differences among the fifteen Soviet republics. While Mikhail Gorbachev, the last Soviet Communist Party General Secretary, resorted to glasnostand perestroika in an attempt to reform the system, his efforts hastened the collapse of the USSR on December 25, 1991.

The dissolution of this multinational empire has generated new questions which must be addressed in order to understand those historic events of 1991. Today, we need to know if the Russian Federation has achieved a new national identity and if the post-Soviet citizens have benefitted from the Soviet collapse. In looking at Moscow’s international standing, it is essential to determine if it renounced its expansionist geopolitical goals? To answer these questions, it is necessary to examine: 1) the evolution of the new socio-political system; 2) the status of Russia’s economy; and, 3) the ethnic factors that will shape this new national community.

Twenty Years Later

Twenty years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, an article entitled “End of the USSR,” appeared in London’s Guardian (August 17, 2011). In compiling statistics about the former USSR, the Guardian data team asked if the changes made life better or worse for the former Soviet citizens.  Numerous accounts document that condition of Soviet life in the throes of the regime’s final years. The country was morally corrupt, politically ossified, and economically bankrupt.  This disastrous condition became clear to me in 1989 when, as a Voice of America reporter, I was assigned to the USSR for just over a month.

The official exchange rate at the time was 0.7 rubles to one U.S. dollar but the unofficial rate was 10 rubles to a dollar. With the official rate I would have starved, but luckily I happened to come across a bus load of American tourists on their way back home and they gave me all their remaining rubles at a black market exchange rate.  Suddenly I felt rich.  In Kiev I hired a “private” cab just for myself though no private cabs were supposed to exist at the time.

The driver took me wherever I wanted, but I had a hard time seeing through the windshield, which was cracked in a hundred places.  I asked him how much a new one would cost, and when I found that it was only 90 rubles I offered to buy him one. But he laughed. “This is the official price,” he answered, “but to get it you have to bribe the store manager with about 1,000 rubles.” Then, we were stopped by a militiaman for the cracked window, though the militiaman knew that there were not enough windshields in the stores to replace the broken ones.  Without saying practically anything, the driver passed him a handful of rubles and he let us go.  Later, in Chisinau, I hired another driver. One day we went to a restaurant to eat, but the line to get in was very long. The driver talked to a doorman, gave him his due, and he let us in telling the waiting people that we were on official business. However, when we wanted to leave the restaurant, the door was locked and another doorman was guarding it.  He would not let us out because we had intruded, forcefully, he said.  Another bribe opened the door.

I was escorted by “Inturist” people, the official Soviet tourist agency, almost everywhere at the time and when I was not escorted I was tailed by the KGB. Yet, it was in Chisinau, where I had to report on the Moldovan Popular Front, that I really felt the KGB’s long hand. One night, all four tires of the car that was taking me around were punctured. The very next day, the chief manager of my hotel told me in a grave note that I had an appointment with two officials at 11o’clock in his office. When I argued that I had other plans that morning, he was almost shaking. The two officials were the Minister of Internal Affairs of Moldova, General Munteanu, and the Minister of Tourism, whose name I forgot. Anyway, they arrived accompanied  by a translator who knew Russian, English and Romanian. The two hour discussion was vague, tortuous, and even puzzling.  In the end, they wanted to know who was paying me to try to destabilize the Soviet Union.  At the end they convinced me “to rent” an official car which would come with a driver and a translator.  Instead of being followed by the KGB now I had to follow the KGB. That was the Soviet Union that I encountered.  The USSR was at a standstill.

Mikhail Gorbachev became the General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party in 1985.  Rising to the highest position in the Kremlin and realizing that the Soviet Union was collapsing from within, he launched a policy of structural changes.  He named his plans Glasnost (openness) and Perestroika (restructuring). While his intention was to save the country through political and economic reforms, once started, the process could no longer be halted or reversed.  Recollecting those “earth-shaking” events, the German magazine Der Spiegel interviewed Mr. Gorbachev and on August 16, 2011 published a lengthy article.  The magazine asked him if he had a plan for transforming the Soviet system and if the party leadership was on his side.  Gorbachev’s answer was equally shaky:

“The party establishment didn’t need perestroika. Each of them had it made. The district party leader was the king in his district, the regional leader was a czar and the general secretary was practically God’s equal. That’s why we needed glasnost first.  It was the path to freedom.  We later conducted the first free elections in Russia in 1,000 years,” Gorbachev explained.

The introduction of Glasnost and Perestroika was a gamble based on the assumption that the Soviet system enjoyed fundamental stability. The prospect of success was balanced by the danger of violence and a complete systemic collapse. Recognizing this, those elements of the “old guard” who enjoyed the full benefits of socialism were skeptical, while younger leaders recognized the need for structural reform. The extremely diverse Soviet population was also divided based on ethnicity. Most Soviet citizens wanted significant improvements but not the dismemberment of the USSR. Gorbachev’s reforms tested the system in a way that resulted in convulsions that threatened the very foundations of the all powerful Soviet state.

In August 1991, Mikhail Gorbachev was vacationing in Crimea, when elements of the old guard staged a coup to prevent further implementation of these reforms. The upheavals ushered in by the abortive coup set the stage for Russia to become a representative system under Boris Yeltsin. As the outspoken president of the Russian Federation, Yeltsin enjoyed the support of the Army as well as millions of citizens. OnAugust 20, 2011, The Wall Street Journal, published an article entitled, “A Cold Warrior at Peace” by Nancy Dewolf- Smith. In the article, she gave an account of an interview with America’s prominent Russian scholar, Richard Pipes. Here is how Mr. Pipes described the final days of the Soviet Union:

“The August putsch began as an effort by Communist Party hard-liners to overthrow President Mikhail Gorbachev and stop his reforms, including efforts to give the Soviet republics more freedom from the center. Civilian resistance in Moscow and other cities, aided by military units who refused to move against the protesters, effectively foiled the plot and made a popular democratic hero of Russian Federation President Boris Yeltsin. By the time Mr. Gorbachev resigned and Mr. Yeltsin took power over Russia, most of the republics had declared independence and Soviet Communism was dead.”

Reflecting on the same events from a Russian perspective, Boris Nemtsov, a leading reformist and a member of the Russian parliament, declared on Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL): “I was a deputy of the Russian parliament and I was with Russian President Boris Yeltsin…  Really, those were very dramatic days… I was not far from Yeltsin when he proclaimed his historic speech from a tank. And he said that this (coup) was completely illegal, unconstitutional, and anti-Russian…”

When questioned about his expectation at that time, Mr. Nemtsov’s answer was thoughtful: “I understood at the time that those were very important days for my country. And really it was the death of communism. We believed that the way to freedom and successful life would be much shorter…We were very naïve. Not only me, but Yeltsin and all of our team…” (“We were romantic…” RFE/RL, September 12, 2011).

Perhaps, but it was only the death of ‘Soviet’ communism!

Valery Vyzhutovichanother Russian insider and a commentator for Rossiyskaya Gazeta, wrote that “August 1991 marked the beginning of the Yeltsin era. Now this era is called simply the 1990s, and it was replaced by the era of Putin – the era of stability.” Vyzhutovich described the Putin era as, “The end of the hopes and illusions of the first post-Soviet years; the crisis of ideology and persistent yet futile attempts to find a national idea; the strengthening of the state and all its institutions by the creation of the vertical power; the increase in nationalism and xenophobia…Indeed, Putin and his men put an end to Russia’s hopes for democratization.” 

In explaining how this change happened and why Vladimir Putin managed to rise so quickly to power, Boris Nemtsov observed, “For many in Russia, the collapse of the Soviet Union marked a significant loss of status and prestige.  Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has stated bluntly that the collapse of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th century. As a result, it has been harder for many Russians to imagine a future that is more attractive than the country’s past, and leaders like Putin have exploited such nostalgia to restore authoritarianism at home and to exert influence in what Moscow sees as its “sphere of privileged interests.” (The Loss of Empire, RFE/RL, August 18, 2011).

President Yeltsin brought former KGB colonel Vladimir Putin to Moscow in the expectation that Putin would strengthen Yeltsin’s position. Eventually, Putin made his way to the senior leadership level.  Later, as president, Putin enlisted other former KGB officers, who took over the vast economic resources of Russia.  Shortly thereafter, he restored Moscow’s dictatorial policies and reasserted control over Eurasia’s periphery. Those who opposed his policy were arrested or in some other way brutally suppressed.

Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who made a fortune during the first years after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, was among those imprisoned.  Khodorkovsky had acquired Yukos, the Russian oil giant.  His wealth did not protect him from being arrested because of his opposition to Putin. Khodorkovsky was charged with fraud and in 2005 was sentenced to eight years in prison.  Many articles, such as “Khodorkovsky: An oligarch undone” (BBC News, 31 May 2005) and “Russian oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky goes on trial for second time” (The Telegraph, March 3, 2009) have outlined his case.  Clearly, under Putin, only those from his inner circle could occupy top political and economic positions.

Other Putin opponents, such as General Alexander Lebed, were also eliminated. Lebed was the commander of Russia’s 106th Airborne Division from 1990 to 1991.  At the height of the crisis, the Army was ordered by the coup organizers to surround the Russian parliament. General Lebed sent in his motorized division, but he never took any action against the parliament or against Yeltsin.  Later, the general entered politics, ran for Russia’s Presidency in 1996 and obtained 14 percent of the vote.  He ran on an anti-corruption platform and argued that “preserving the army is the basis for preserving the government.”  At the same time, Lebed described Chilean General Pinochet as having managed to revive Chile by “putting the army in first place.” Putin never forgave him for such allusions. In May 1998, Lebed was elected governor of Krasnoyarsk, Russia’s second largest region.  However, he died in 2002 in a very suspicious helicopter crash. (“Alexander Lebed—Russian General who applied military toughness to politics,” The Guardian, April 29, 2002; See also, the Decline and fall of the Soviet Empire: Forty Years That Shook the World, from Stalin to Yeltsin, by Fred Coleman).

In the interview cited above, Richard Pipes stressed that by 2000 Putin had launched a war in Chechnya and began to reduce newly acquired freedoms throughout the Russian Federation .  He ended popular election of governors, took over television stations and reinstated “a culture in which free-speaking journalists got murdered.”  Mr. Pipes told the Wall Street Journal that among Russians, Putin’s approval ratings soared. “Russians like strong leaders, autocratic leaders: Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great, Stalin…  They have contempt for weak leaders who don’t impose their will but listen to the people,” Richard Pipes declared.

A public opinion poll conducted by a Moscow TV station in December 2008 confirmed Mr. Pipes’ observation with its findings that Soviet dictator Josef Stalin was among the most respected Russian leaders.  The poll itself did not refer to any living leader but Putin and the analysis supported the proposition that Putin had emerged as a popular Russian leader.   In 2007, Vladimir Sorokin, a well-known Russian writer, told a German magazine:  “We still live in the country that was built by Ivan the Terrible.” Douglas Birch, in his article, “Russia’s military action rooted in 1,000 year-old empire,” wrote that to protect its unique culture, which is neither Asian nor European, Russia had “adopted a kind of psychological isolation from the rest of the world…” Thus, twenty years after the dissolution of the USSR, Russia, under Putin and Dmitri Medvedev, is once again an authoritarian state.

Nicholas Dima, Ph.D., is a former professor and author of numerous books and articles including the autobiographical memoir, Journey to Freedom, a description of the effects of communist dictatorship on a nation, a family and an individual. (Refer to updated editions). He is currently a contributor to

SFPPR News & Analysis.